Advice For Jazz Students #23: W is for Why.

In 1958, if you were a jazz musician, things were surely on the up. “Milestones” by Miles Davis, “Freedom Suite” by Sonny Rollins, “John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio”, “Ahmad Jamal: Live At The Pershing” and countless other albums came spewing out, a steady stream of inspired, revolutionary and important music. And everyone would have been waiting with bated breath, had they known it was going to happen, for the official “Best Year Of Jazz Music”- 1959! (I’m sure once it arrived, Mingus and Ellington breathed a huge sigh of relief and said “aha, at last! It’s all going well for us now! No more struggle!“)

In the same year, serialist composer Milton Babbit wrote an essay called “Who Cares If You Listen”?, a title that was stuck on by headline hungry editors (it wasn’t his) as if to reduce Babbitt’s whole thesis to a raised middle finger. I’m not interested in dissecting it all here, but he says this at one point:

…the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.”

A retreat, then, to boldly not go where you are not wanted, as Captain Kirk might have said, but to research quietly, in a lab coat, the properties of musical structure understood by others in the same line of work. It’s like he was working on a cure for musical illiteracy, and then keeping it only for people who don’t have any symptoms. His disdain for the “whistling repertory of the man in the street“, the curse of populism, comes across like someone chastising their kids for not washing their hands before dinner. He’s a human making music, but for who? And why?

Public and private performance now overlap somewhat, for better or worse. The bedroom arena route to stardom on the stage was undreamt of in 1958; Babbitt’s bedroom gives the impression of a place full of sharpened pencils and bad dreams. He was, as you can see, on a bit of a downer about the future of “serious music”. I don’t want to argue the toss about whether music should reach out to the public, or draw them in (God forbid it should do both). I’m looking at the dates. Babbitt saw an end to what he regarded as serious music by 1958, but for Coltrane, Brubeck, Cecil Taylor and others it was only just beginning.

There will always be detractors, you will always wonder why you are doing it, you may or may not be dismayed by the apparent lack of appreciation from family, friends, the general public or the media. Don’t let that stop you. It is difficult, much easier with a deadline, especially when such a line has a fee at the end, but an audience of one (you) is enough as a starting point. Stravinsky used to just write all day, then when a commission came in, he’d often have something that fit the brief. We aren’t all Stravinsky, we aren’t even all composers, but improvising is the same, because what you play for yourself goes in somewhere and come out, somewhere else, later.

Babbitt felt he was creating something new that, paradoxically, needed to be preserved, creating a closely guarded method of advancement for music, a weird museum of the future. But, you know, whatever floats your boat. He made stuff, he found a way, an academic on a mission to keep music from those who don’t understand it. I feel as if I’m stuck in the middle of a whirlpool of detritus and debris, and, arms outstretched, I catch whatever is passing and I like the look of, and make something out of it. We come and go, and the storm blows on.

But also, to some extent, I’m with Babbitt. To be ambitious is sometimes merely to get really good. When people say “you’re not very ambitious”, I think, well my ambition is to finish this piece or this album or this sodding blog. And to do it well, so everything adds up and makes sense. When that happens, it’s kind of finished. Then the concerns about being a performer start, and I’ve never been one of them. The piano makes music a kind of desk job, coupled with the concentration of a particularly taxing evacuation of the bowels. Works for me, perhaps not for photographers.

So why then? We all have our reasons, but in the end no amount of news about revivals, revolutions, deaths and rebirths will stop people from wrestling that nagging tune out of their head and on to a laptop or a piano or some manuscript paper. You can even whistle it into your phone. The people that want to tell you it’s over or it’s just starting or it’s in need of a rethink, well, I hope someone is writing something like this for them too, because they also need to survive…

After all this, I went back to the music. Listening to Babbitt’s piano pieces, I feel that the two seemingly unrelated experiences of 1958 collided, became absorbed in each other. Serialism’s sound world eventually found its way into a landscape where Cecil Taylor or Alex Maguire could improvise something every bit as detailed as Babbitt’s painstakingly rendered notations and do a new one the next day.  So I’m not feeling Babbitt because somehow it doesn’t seem good economics. But it’s all over the internet now, so he can’t keep it from me any more. I’m not sure whether he’d like that or not.


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